On the same day that former baseball superstar Mark McGwire dominated media coverage with his steroids confession, a real hero passed away virtually unnoticed.

Such is our collective state of mind these days. Celebrity is mistaken for substance, and admitting guilt to salvage a career is considered an act of courage.

So, let us pause for a moment and recall the extraordinary life of Miep Gies, who died Monday at the age of 100.

She is the Miep in Anne Frank’s diary, the gentile friend who helped hide the Jewish family and four of their friends for more than two years in the small attic apartment in Amsterdam. She is the woman who regularly bought groceries and supplies to keep all of them alive and who, along with her husband, lived every day in fear that the Nazis would discover what they were doing.

In her 1987 memoir, which she wrote at the urging of American writer Alison Leslie Gold, Gies described the moment on Aug. 4, 1944, when Gestapo agents invaded the office building and marched up the stairs to where her beloved friends were hiding.

“I was in a terrible mental state,” she wrote. “I felt as though I were falling into a bottomless hole. What could I do? I sat down again. I was in shock.

“Then, along the corridor … down the old wooden stairway, I could hear the sound of our friends’ feet. I could tell from their footsteps that they were coming down like beaten dogs.”

The Gestapo herded Gies’ friends into a waiting van. All of them were shipped to concentration camps. Only Anne’s father survived.

Otto Frank was living with Gies and her husband the day he discovered that his daughters had died. Only then did Gies pull out of a drawer all of Anne’s diaries, which she had rushed to salvage before the Germans returned to clear out the attic.

She never had read the pages, hoping to deliver them to Anne when she returned. Instead, they became arguably the most compelling chronicle of the Holocaust. Tens of millions of people have read Anne Frank’s diary, in dozens of languages.

In 1997, Gies came to Cleveland, where I spent several days following her from venue to venue as she told Anne’s story. She was already 88 years old, logging tens of thousands of miles each year to keep alive the legacy of her beloved friends.

She resisted all efforts to depict her as a hero. To idealize her, she insisted, was to let off the hook those who fail to act in the face of injustice.

“I am not a hero,” she said. “I don’t like being called a hero because no one should ever think you have to be special to help others. I am just a very common person. I was relieved when Otto unfolded his plan (to hide in the attic) and asked for help.”

She did it as much for herself as she did it for her friends, she told me.

“I could anticipate the sleepless nights and the remorse I would feel later in life if I did not assist those in trouble. Remorse is far worse than any death I could have faced.”

Whenever Gies traveled to speak about Anne Frank, she insisted on meeting with students who were about the same age as Anne when she died.

During her stay in Cleveland, I noticed that Gies was far more relaxed speaking to the children than she was addressing large audiences of adults. In public forums, questions were submitted in writing. In classrooms, children shot their hands in the air, and she called on them one by one.

I brought my own daughter, who was in the third grade, to one of Gies’ talks. Thirteen years later, I still remember their exchange.

Gies was barely 5 feet tall, so she did not have to lean over far to cup my daughter’s wide-eyed face with her hands.

“How old are you?” Gies asked, smiling.

“Nine,” my daughter said, returning her smile.

“Sweet child,” Gies said. “Sweet child.”

The elderly woman’s smile faded, but her hands lingered as she continued to stare.

I did not need to ask what — or who — was on her mind.

Connie Schultz is a columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the author of two books.

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